It seems like an annual tradition for TV critics to flambé the Oscar telecast—Washington Post gasbag Tom Shales, the medium’s most hyperbolic critic, is particularly apoplectic this year—but I’ll break from the pack in saying that this was its most entertaining show in recent memory. Apparently, that City Slickers guy is the gold standard for Oscar hosts, but I appreciate Chris Rock and Jon Stewart’s attempts to do away with the canned Bruce Villanch one-liners and deflate the vane pageantry of it all. For two years straight, I’ve woken up surprised to see the hosts so ill-received by the press, but then again, hosting the Oscars is an impossible gig: Every joke is freighted with a billion-people-are-watching significance (Is it too obvious? Too obscure? Does it go too far? Does it go far enough?), and the host has to play captain to a gigantic ship that’s doomed to sink every year. All he can do is deliver a snappy monologue—and Stewart did that, in spite of a little nervousness at the beginning—and provide some amusing bridges between the individual awards presentations. Other considerations, like the movie montages and the interpretative dances and the long speeches thanking lawyers and agents, are beyond his control.

Highlights:

• The pre-prepared comic segments were all funny, including the self-deprecating intro, the “gay Western” montage, and the nominee attack ads (Memoirs Of A Geisha sound editor Wylie Stateman got stung by going negative).

• Stewart’s monologue was solid, but his off-the-cuff remarks throughout the night were sharper and more relaxed. Too many great lines to mention, but a few favorites: “Capote showed that all gay people are not virile cowboys. Some are effete New York intellectuals.” To Spielberg, re: Schindler’s List and Munich: “I think I speak for all Jews when I say: 'I can't wait to see what happens to us next. Trilogy?” After the issue movie montage: “And none of those issues were ever a problem again.” After the Crash song: “If you are trying to escape a burning car, my advice would be not to move in slow motion.” “Three 6 Mafia 1, Martin Scorsese 0.” Etc.

• The Robert Altman tribune was the most moving stretch of the night, from the high-wire Altmanesque introduction by Lily Tomlin and Meryl Streep (which seemed to veer toward disaster and back again, until finally summing up to a kind of triumph, which is a pretty good description of an average Altman film) to the director’s prepared remarks, which repeat a lot of the metaphors he’s thrown around over the years about painting, sand castles, etc., but with feeling. I was expecting some Pinter-like political commentary from him, but his maverick side was preserved in his closing remarks about having a young heart with a lot more life in it.

• George Clooney’s acceptance speech: Funny, gracious, self-deprecating, and, in the end, refreshingly defiant. Out of touch? So be it.

• Three 6 Mafia: Forget about Crash, this was the upset of the night for me. I was certain that the Academy was going to honor Dolly Parton’s rather rote song as a sort of lifetime achievement award, but instead there’s the spectacle of a rap combo crashing the year’s most austere pageant.

• There were some robotic (Nicole Kidman) and confused (Lauren Becall) teleprompter readings last night, so I was thankful for more creative bits of business from Ben Stiller and Will Farrell/Steve Carell, which had a loose, improvisatory element to them that the Oscars really need as the night trudges on. Of course, the downside of that is Will Smith introducing the Best Foreign-Language Film nominees. Sayonara, chico.

Lowlights

• Best Picture: Crash. Maybe there were exclaims of excitement at your party, but at the one I attended last night, there was a collective gasp followed by a “Noooooooooo!!!” when the fine Brokeback Mountain was upset by this schematic issue movie. Paul Haggis referred to art as “a hammer” in his screenplay acceptance speech, so I guess I should compliment him on a completely realized vision: We just disagree about what constitutes art. If you want to send a message, as the saying goes, try Western Union. (Though not anymore, since they’ve discontinued their telegram service.)

• Those damned Chuck Workman montages. There seemed to be a movement to get away from all that Tinseltown filler, especially when the most efficient show still runs three hours plus, but Workman provided three pointless tributes to biopics, film noir, epics, and issue movies. And most of the montages caused confusion: Can The Night Of The Hunter be considered film noir? Does every movie that runs over two hours qualify as an epic? What issue does Something's Gotta Give tackle? That older people like to fuck, too?

• Gil Cates is always looking for ways to make acceptance speeches more tolerable, but he still hasn’t found the right solution. No speeches were given from the audience this year, but the decision to underscore speeches with music was a distraction, as were those unnerving extreme close-ups of the winners. (And what’s with that spotlight that suddenly flipped on over Morgan Freeman’s head as he was watching the March Of The Penguins guy? Freaky.) If I were Gil, I’d politely advise nominees to consider the viewers when writing acceptance speeches and save their laundry list of thank yous for later.

Highlight/Lowlight

• The return of the interpretive dance number. In recent years, Oscars have gone away from the cheese of old and allowed the song nominees to perform in a relatively tasteful setting. I remember a particularly good year when all five nominees performed one after another in different rooms that would rotate in and out of darkness when one was done and the other began. Not since Michael Flatley’s Lord Of The Dance introduced Best Editing in 2002 have the Oscars embraced the Debbie Allen-style choreography that was on display last night. Of the two, the best/worst was the song for Crash with all the fire and smoke and people writhing around like zombies moaning for brains.

Other thoughts? (And in the meantime, Crash haters will enjoy this. And apropos
of nothing, Microsoft haters will enjoy this.)

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